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Why is John Paul II on trial in the media today?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 27, 2011

Do you remember the death of Pope John Paul II? Could you ever forget it?

For several days, during that first week of April in 2005, the attention of the entire world was riveted on the Vatican. Television networks kept vigil during the Pope’s last hours, and when he finally died, there was a universal sense that the world had lost a great man. The reaction from crowd in St. Peter’s Square was odd, yet appropriate: after a moment’s hush, the people broke into spontaneous, quiet applause, paying homage to a life well lived.

Never before, in all of human history, have so many people paid attention to a man’s death. Never before has the mourning been so universal. In the days after the Pope’s death, when the Vatican moved on to his funeral, the reverential awe for John Paul II remained. When the congregation at the funeral took up the cry of “Santo subito!” everyone who heard it understood. The 20th century had given the world a series of giant historical figures, most of them morally flawed or even downright evil. But here was a man worthy of admiration: a man who, while human, was easily recognized for his essential goodness, for his outsized contributions to the common good–for what the Catholic Church calls his “heroic virtue.”

Check back in the news archives for April 2005, and you will find only a few token criticisms of Pope John Paul II, most of them buried within the context of laudatory stories. The newspaper stories, summing up his prodigious accomplishments, were overwhelmingly favorable. Apart from the most inveterate critics of Catholicism (including a few who still identify themselves as Catholics), columnists did not question the overall record of the deceased Pontiff. The coverage of his funeral was solemn and respectful. The retrospective essays were appreciative.

Now, six years later, as the Catholic Church prepares to beatify John Paul II—to act on those Santo subito demands—the media have turned critical. Scan the news today, and you will find dozens of columnists questioning whether the late Pope should be beatified. The Vatican has moved forward too quickly, they say, and the sex-abuse crisis casts shadows on the legacy of John Paul II.

Why this remarkable change of perspective? Why has the near-universal adulation for John Paul II changed, in a few years, to widespread skepticism about his pontificate?

To some extent, the skepticism is a natural (if not healthy) function of today’s media world. Reporters need something to talk about, and controversy catches attention. At the time of his death and burial, the life of John Paul II was a warm human-interest story. Now the royal wedding provides a more picturesque “feel-good” story, and the Pope’s legacy is left on the laboratory table, ready for dissection. But there’s more to it than that. People who have never before shown any interest in the process by which the Church declares saints are now weighing in on the pace of the late Pope’s cause. More ominously, reporters are asking, again and again, whether John Paul II bears the blame for the sex-abuse scandal. Let’s focus on that latter question.

What do we know now, that we didn’t know in 2005, about Pope John Paul’s handling of the sex-abuse crisis? Not much. The details of the scandal were fresh in our minds in 2005. For Europeans the shock may be greater now, since the major revelations have been more recent. For Americans the wounds are not quite so raw. We had begun to grasp the dimensions of the problem in 2002; by 2005 the corruption had been thoroughly exposed.

We have learned, in the intervening years, that some of the prelates in the Roman Curia were ready and willing to cover up sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. But no evidence has emerged to suggest that John Paul II himself was involved in the cover-up, or even aware of it. We have learned that the Pope was duped by Marcial Maciel. But many thousands of other Catholics were duped, too, by that unique and dangerous man. We have learned that John Paul II didn’t run a very tight ship at the Vatican. But we knew that in 2005; in fact, we knew it all too well by 1985.

So again, why has criticism of the late Pope come to the fore in 2011, when the world viewed him so favorably in 2005? The answer to that question, I think, lies in the way the discussion of the sex-abuse scandal has evolved.

In 2000, as the first outcroppings of the scandal appeared in public view, most observers were rightly outraged at the priests who had molested children. In 2002, when the extent of the hierarchical cover-up became evident, we were rightly outraged at the bishops who had protected the abusers. We realized, to our horror, that the corruption had involved not just a few twisted priests, but also dozens of complicit bishops. As the years have passed, critics of the Church (again, including some within the fold) have sought to broaden the scope of the censure still further, to condemn the entire Catholic Church.

By 2005, lawyers for sex-abuse victims had won billions of dollars in damages from the Church in America, driving dioceses toward bankruptcy. Then the most ambitious among them, led by Jeffrey Anderson, set their sights on a new target: the Vatican. With the help of sympathetic reporters, they too have worked to create the impression that the cover-up of sexual abuse was a worldwide strategy, dictated by Vatican leaders. Thus fingers are pointed at the Pope. But where is the evidence to support these charges? When John Paul II became aware of the cover-up prior to 2002, he summoned the leaders of the American hierarchy to Rome and denounced the corruption in clear, ringing terms. He cannot be blamed for abuses that occurred before he became Roman Pontiff; he cannot be held responsible for the malfeasance of other bishops, which occurred without his knowledge and which he denounced when he became aware of it.

Six years ago the mass media joined in the worldwide public acclaim for John Paul II. Were they wrong to do so? Because if the praise was merited in 2005, and no important new evidence has been discovered to stain the late Pope’s reputation, the same homage is due to John Paul II today.

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Show 11 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jdieterich616502 - Apr. 28, 2011 3:20 PM ET USA

    I think the situation, specific to his beatification/canonization is pretty straight-forward. We either accept the Church to be what She teaches to be, or we do not. Whether someone is canoinzed in 1 year or 100 years, the Spirit guides, and if it has been revealed that JP2 holds a place amongst the saints of heaven, then it's done, regardless of any imperfections or timings

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Apr. 28, 2011 10:00 AM ET USA

    What human instrument of the Holy Spirit other than God Incarnate and Our Lady persobnally brought more people to the love and truth of God than Karol Jozef Wotyla? How many unborn lives were saved from abortion by his teaching and personal witness? How many vocations inspired and encouraged by his priestly example? How many nations liberated? Here's the big question: what does Joseph Ratzinger think of Karol Wotyla?

  • Posted by: Franz10108953 - Apr. 28, 2011 12:43 AM ET USA

    A Vatican spokesman recently defended the beatification decision by differentiating Pope John Paul's heroic living of Christian virtue from his execution of the Petrine ministry as Pope. There is something to be said for that however why does nobody treat his kissing of the Koran, drinking of pagan libations and inculturated liturgies which included topless native women? Since the Church teaches that engaging in pagan acts of worship is a sin, isn't his heroic virtue down the drain too?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 27, 2011 11:09 PM ET USA

    Pope John Paul II was a remarkable, popular figure who dominated the world scene for nearly 30 years. It is no wonder that there was a widespread emotional call for his canonization. Nonetheless,there were serious questions already in 2005. Is he worthy of nearly unparalleled honors despite serious reservations? Lowering standards is pervasive today, but it has no place in the canonization process. The problems happened; leaders take responsibility. It's not fair; but neither is life.

  • Posted by: lauriem5377 - Apr. 27, 2011 7:07 PM ET USA

    Our Lord knows who is a saint and who isn't. That is enough for me.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Apr. 27, 2011 5:51 PM ET USA

    I wonder at the rush to canonize just 6 years after JPII's death. God forbid, what if something unsavory is uncovered? Is it just that our generation has to have everything done yesterday? It is too soon to be talking canonization.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 27, 2011 5:08 PM ET USA

    An excellent analysis. As I read it I couldn't help but think of Pope Pius XII who was universally hailed at his death because of his courageous actions during the Second World War and his subsequent vilification by the same press just within a few short years of his death.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 27, 2011 4:23 PM ET USA

    Was Pope John Paul II a great organizer? No, but he was one heck of a teacher. I owe my reinstatement into the Catholic Church to the CCC, and to the many documents of the Holy Offices. You can read Scripture and see that St. Paul was not perfect, but he was a saint all the same. As to liturgy--we have Ecclesia Dei, which reformed liturgy in our diocese far beyond the Tridentine Mass. God uses fragile vessels to do his work, as Pope John Paul would be the first to admit.

  • Posted by: john.paul3561 - Apr. 27, 2011 2:56 PM ET USA

    By the same token, sainthood shouldn't be put on the fast track by the public clammoring for a popular Pope. If he didn't run a "tight ship" at the Vatican, should he be considered John Paul the Great? Isn't he responsible for the selection of bishops? What about what happened to the Liturgy during his pontificate? Again, no responsibility whatsoever?

  • Posted by: ginamarie91432156 - Apr. 27, 2011 1:45 PM ET USA

    This is an excellent article. I'm thankful for your solid journalism rooted in truth over the sensationalism of the secular media. Defender, I agree with you on this. The Church isn't a corporation. To put it simply, Judas betrayed Jesus much the same way, and wasn't exposed until the Last Supper, and even then wasn't stopped from doing what he did. Why did the scandal play out as it did? Only God knows; perhaps to teach the world a lesson that hasn't yet unfolded.

  • Posted by: Defender - Apr. 27, 2011 12:09 PM ET USA

    The problem seems always to be that the press just doesn't know how to read...they believe that the Church is a pyramid with the pope at the apex running the everyday affairs everywhere in the world (including into every diocese). Of course he doesn't, but the press assumes such a hierarchy exists and the sex scandals are an example of the pope not doing anything about it because they think he should have, so it's obviously a cover-up!

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